Final Thought

Sonny Rhodes in the newsroom of the 
Pine Bluff Commercial in 1976.
 

It just now took 11.1 seconds for my computer to come out of sleep mode so I could compose this sentence. Yes, I timed it — using the smartphone that’s sitting within easy reach of my right hand.

 

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about technology, especially when it comes to communications. A couple of things happened about a week ago that set me to reflecting more than usual: A former colleague emailed me for some historical perspective on newsrooms. It then dawned on me that last month marked 40 years since I took my first full-time newspaper job. And it was even longer ago — yikes, 43 years — that I started my first newspaper internship. Wow, I have become a primary historical source.

As that well-worn saying goes, things aren’t what they used to be.

A little background: In May 1973 I landed an internship at my hometown newspaper, the Pine Bluff Commercial. Three years later, following graduate school, I returned to the Commercial to become assistant city hall reporter. In the next 20-plus years, I worked for Conway’s Log Cabin Democrat, the Arkansas Democrat, the Arkansas Gazette, and, lastly, the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. Since 2000, I have taught journalism at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, and since 2007, I’ve been writing this column. It’s been an adventure.

Thinking back to that internship, I might as well be describing an age just slightly more advanced than when Johannes Gutenberg introduced movable type in the 1400s. As an intern, I used a manual typewriter to pound out stories on paper. I was taught to think of each paragraph as a single unit of thought. Thus, a story could be cut into pieces, its paragraphs arranged, rearranged and glued together (the original cut and paste) to make the story more readable (or so it was hoped).

Each story eventually went to a fellow perched at the keyboard of a large, loud contraption that, using molten lead, turned keystrokes into words, setting stories one line of type at a time, hence the name Linotype machine.

When I returned to the Commercial three years later, the newspaper had progressed to a primitive form of word-processing. Reporters and editors composed on electric typewriters, using special paper that, please forgive my getting technical here, magically led to the words being set into print. No more Linotype machine.

A few more years and newspapers later, I composed stories on a portable computer. Portable is used loosely here. The machine was as big as a suitcase and felt like it was filled with bricks. Its screen was as small as a cell phone. Fortunately, that phase didn’t last long or I might have suffered a hernia.

Speaking of phones, there was a frigid morning in January 1979 when I was dispatched to Harrison, where a natural gas leak had caused an explosion that reduced the telephone company office to rubble. This was long before cell phones. After a long day of note-taking, I had to drive 15 miles to find a working telephone booth, where I shivered in the dim light, reading my notes and composing my story on the fly, dictating to a clerk at the Democrat office in Little Rock.

And there was a night, about a year later, that I was assigned to cover a speech in Batesville at what was then Arkansas College (now Lyon College). By this time I had a smaller, lighter computer with a receptacle into which I could place a telephone’s mouthpiece and send a story through a high-pitched electronic signal to the newspaper’s computer. A college representative told me he’d leave the door to his office unlocked, so I could go there after the speech to work on my story. Things were going fine until I tried to transmit my piece. The phone had no dial tone. I learned later that the college’s switchboard had shut down for the night. Desperate, my deadline fast approaching, I rushed to find a working phone. Some cursing may have been involved. Fortunately, I found a payphone in a nearby hallway and, cradling my computer on one arm, used my free hand to dial the mother computer.

So, yes, things aren’t what they used to be. And I’m very thankful.

I’m about to attach this column to an email and send it to my AY friends. And I will never, ever curse an electronic device … unless, of course, it takes more than 11.1 seconds to fire up.

E-comments? Email sonnyrhodes@sbcglobal.net.

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